Displacement and Dialogue: University-Community Engagement as an Expansive Learning Process

Displacement and Dialogue: University-Community Engagement as an Expansive Learning Process

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7400-3.ch005
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In this chapter, the authors draw on UC Links research to define university-community engagement as a form of expansive learning. Through comparative analysis of various program sites, the authors examine how UC Links community and university partners have worked together to build programmatic strategies for re-engaging disengaged students through innovative learning activities that have been developed in collaboration and through a process of critical dialoguing between community and university people. The authors begin with an ethnographic look at Oakland Y-PLAN (Youth – Plan, Learn, Act, Now) to show how these activities exemplify young people's expansive learning and how adults and young people from the university, the community, and multiple local organizations and agencies have learned how to work together productively – in other words, how they have learned to listen to each other's voices to transform the oppressive structures of the past and present and, in this way, envision and build a more equitable future.
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In a classroom at an Oakland high school where Y-PLAN (Youth – Plan, Learn, Act, Now) works with teachers and students, the problematic character of the collaborative work of co-constructing meaningful activities for the young people was particularly apparent on one day when the authors were visiting the site (Mahmood & Underwood, 2019). The high school, located in West Oakland, serves over 400 students from all over Oakland (students may attend any school in Oakland; however, school bussing is not provided). West Oakland is an African American neighborhood which, prior to the mid-twentieth century, had a robust history of long-term social well-being and political prominence in the city of Oakland. This history was disrupted by the construction of a major freeway, the Cypress Street Viaduct (a double-decker interstate freeway) which from the time of its opening in 1957, physically displaced the West Oakland community from its formerly strategic geographical position close to the city’s economic and political center. The socioeconomic displacement of this community proved devastating, until the complete collapse of the two-tiered freeway structure in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The dismantling of the massive concrete barrier represented a faint sign of hope for the beleaguered community.

Y-PLAN in West Oakland took place in a computer science classroom with lots of windows, tables, and chairs, but no computers. In class on the day of the authors’ visit, about 10 students in the class were absent (a quite typical occurrence, according to the other students). The Y-PLAN Senior Program Manager and three undergrads from the Y-PLAN undergraduate course were working with 17 high school students, and a professional planner from a key Y-PLAN client: the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a regional planning agency for all nine Bay Area counties. MTC is mandated to develop a prospective plan for the year 2050 for all nine San Francisco Bay Area counties that addresses issues such as housing, transportation, land use, and resilience in response to fires, earthquakes, and sea-level rise. Seeking input from communities throughout the region to inform this plan, MTC was particularly interested in responses from communities that it usually does not hear from, and Y-PLAN enabled MTC to incorporate young people’s voices from marginalized neighborhoods in Oakland.

As a university-community collaborative program, Y-PLAN represents a programmatic strategy that engages young people in authentic city planning and community development projects that they themselves help define, propose, and carry out locally.

Figure 1.

Y-PLAN’s 5-step process


Y-PLAN engages its university and community partners in a series of activities (represented in Figure 1) that go beyond placemaking – the attempt to design and enhance public spaces in which people can truly thrive; through “critical placemaking,” students explore their community-oriented positionality within their own neighborhoods (McKoy & Eppley, interview, 10/15/19). Critical placemaking centers youth and youth voice in the deeper inquiry process on which Y-PLAN is based and challenges its young participants to be critically reflective of the places in which they live and are trying to analyze. So, while the “Y” in Y-PLAN centers youth voice, it also asks “why?” and engages youth in critical inquiry, recognizing their agency and their right to ask why. According to McKoy, Y-PLAN founder, “That's important because that is the Y-PLAN. We say it's an acronym, but what's much more important is, it's an invitation to step back and ask why and challenge and bring out that critical perspective” (interview, 10/15/19).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Intersubjectivity: The emergent interactive process of developing a shared attentiveness to or sense of a common object through sociocultural activity.

Critical Dialogue: The communicative process by which people from different community and institutional cultures engage in joint activity while continuing to hold basic disagreements about basic principles and understandings of what the activity is about.

Collaborative Engagement: Sustained mutual interaction as a kind of integrative learning in which people from different communities or institutions learn to pool their culturally or institutionally disparate funds of knowledge into coherent approaches for joint pragmatic action.

Expansive Learning: A process by which people engaged in an activity system (in this case, university and community partners) qualitatively transform the ways they work together productively.

Integrative Learning: The aspect of expansive learning involving the cognitive capacity that all human beings have to bring together disparate knowledge by drawing on their own and others’ experiences related to key problems and concerns through sustained joint activity and discourse aimed at fulfilling particular goals or objectives.

Funds of Knowledge: The knowledge and competencies that people have gained through life experience in their respective families, communities, and institutions.

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